My first college summer job was working for Union Oil Company in the Kern River Valley oil fields around Bakersfield, California. I, along with several other Colorado School of Mines engineering students, worked as a summer roustabout. At the end of my freshman year, I loaded up my dad’s old Ford Maverick and drove west along I-10 to Los Angeles, then veered north on I-5 to Bakersfield. This was my first time in the state of California, and I was excited to be employed in energy.
I met my fellow Miners at a pre-arranged Bakersfield hotel, and then we fanned out to find a place to live. By the end of the day, we located a furnished three-bedroom apartment and the five of us moved in. The next morning, we piled into one of our cars and drove to Union’s Taft field office, about 35 miles southwest of Bakersfield. We arrived early and sat down on outside chairs. Workers started to show up and clustered around us. One of them said, “Look whose sitting in Preacher’s chair.” We quickly surmised that these chairs were claimed by seniority and apologized, then retired to an isolated area. I learned my first lesson: the new guy is the lowest on the totem pole.
After getting a briefing, we were introduced to our foreman, Dilbert. He was in his fifties, wrinkled from the desert sun, and gruff. He told us to get into an A-frame truck and follow him. I had never driven a large manual transmission truck so one of my college friends volunteered to drive the stick shift. We got into the cab and off we drove into the oil fields. All around us were pumping jacks, tanks, and pipes. The land was barren sand except for the occasional tumbleweed. The weather was bone dry and by afternoon, the May temperature was already reaching 100F.
We arrived at a tank farm and were instructed to dig out oil that had spilled during the winter and mixed with the sand around the tanks. We used a jack shovel and wheelbarrow to remove the slimy oil-sand mixture. For two weeks, we labored eight hours a day in the hot sun. Dilbert watched us and drank hot coffee during breaks. At lunchtime, we searched for a shady spot to cool off. Dilbert seemed satisfied with our progress, although he never said anything positive nor smiled. I learned my second lesson: it takes time and hard work to build trust when you are the new guy on the job.
Our next task was to do pipeline repairs. Dilbert would tell us to fetch tools for him and use slang words to describe them. We would search the truck for what we thought he needed only to get chewed out for bringing the wrong tool. He purposely wanted to show the engineering students how little we knew about the oil business. He opened my eyes to his practical wisdom developed over 30 years working in the oil fields. I learned my third lesson: practical wisdom is just as important as theoretical wisdom; listen and learn from experienced workers.
One day, Dilbert asked for a volunteer to replace a roughneck on a workover rig. I raised my hand and was ushered into another truck and transported to an oil rig. I climbed the rig ladder to the top and spent the day shoving long strands of pipe into a pipe rack. It was easier work than digging, but one needs good timing and steady balance. I enjoyed the work and wished I could have spent more time with this crew. While I was working, a company car drove up and a young man stepped out wearing office clothes and a clean hard hat. I was dressed in a ratty T-shirt and blue jeans spotted with oil and dirt. He was the district engineer inspecting the operation. I learned a fourth lesson: an engineering degree was required to do his job. I was suddenly motivated in a new and more dynamic way. Theory became practical. All my parent’s advice on careers could not have incentivized me as much as sweating in the hot California desert and seeing that professional worker in his air-conditioned car.
In a Wall Street Journal (WSJ) letter, Lessons From a Summer Digging Ditches: I learned teamwork, pacing and, most important, the value of education (June 27, 2021), former Baseball Commissioner Fay Vincent wrote about his summer working for a construction company. “The central lesson was the value of education. Swinging a pick in the ditch motivated me to find a better way to live. I knew my education was the means to freedom from the ditch—from having to use my muscles to make a living.”
One final lesson I learned is respect for all workers. That summer, Dilbert and others taught me life-long lessons. I respected him and his knowledge. His role was just as vital to the organization as professional roles. Dilbert let the engineering students know of his frustrations with engineers who didn’t listen to his seasoned advice. He wanted us to learn the trade and work effectively with operational people. At the end of this summer, I vowed to always show respect for and to listen to all workers, no matter what role they performed.
The Apostle Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 12:12–13 that the body requires a variety of members. We all have different talents and gifts given by God. “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.” (NRSV) Thank God for Dilbert and others who taught me many lessons that hot summer in the Kern River Valley.